With Napoli trailing to Genoa at half-time this past weekend, it once again appeared as if Juventus would benefit from one of their Serie A rivals failing to deliver when it most mattered. That kind of collapse has become a regular occurrence in Italian football over the past four years, with the southern club – as well as AS Roma – undeniably the guiltiest, both clubs slipping at the most inopportune moments and allowing the Bianconeri to coast to title after title.
Under previous bosses Walter Mazzarri and Rafael Benitez, Napoli lacked necessary mental toughness to maintain a viable Scudetto challenge, but on Sunday they would prove that things are very different in 2015/16. Tomás Rincón brushed a Kalidou Koulibaly challenge aside in the tenth minute and smashed a powerful shot under bar, handing the visitors the lead while simultaneously stunning the Stadio San Paolo crowd.
Genoa had goalkeeper Mattia Perin to thank for helping them hold out, their resistance lasting until five minutes after the restart when Gonzalo Higuain finally broke open the opposition defence’s well-drilled offside trap. Running on to Elseid Hysaj’s superb ball over the top, the Argentinean striker fired a low shot into the back of the net and he was not done there.
Having already seen two efforts cleared off the line, Higuain would collect Marek Hamšík’s pass and curl home his 29th goal of the season on what was only his 30th league appearance of the campaign, a return that is emblematic of the turnaround at Napoli under new Coach Maurizio Sarri. Eventually running out 3-1 winners, the result kept the Partenopei within three points of Juventus and continued their excellent form under the 57-year-old tactician.
Having made his top flight debut with Empoli last season, Sarri’s impact upon the Napoli squad has been nothing short of sensational, with the club making few changes following the departure of Benitez back in the summer. Pepe Reina returned from his twelve month stint as Manuel Neuer’s caddy at Bayern Munich, joining defensive midfielder Allan and right-back Hysaj as their only real acquisitions in the transfer market.
The coach has transformed Koulibaly into one of Serie A’s most resolute defenders, while lifting Brazilian born midfielder Jorginho from bit-part player into an accomplished playmaker. Indeed, WhoScored.com shows he has completed more passes than anyone in Europe’s top five leagues, with his average of 104.2 almost ten per game more than second-place Thiago Motta of Paris Saint-Germain.
Jorginho’s ability to find a team-mate has led to vast improvements in Napoli’s attack with both Jose Callejon and Lorenzo Insigne exceptional thus far, although the contribution of both men pales in comparison with that of Higuain. No player across the continent has netted more league goals than the former Real Madrid man, currently sitting one clear of former team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo and two ahead of Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the race for the European Golden Shoe.
Also weighing in with two more strikes in limited Europa League action, he has blossomed into an incredible striker, one capable of netting from almost anywhere whilst also shrugging off his reputation as a man who shrinks in the biggest matches. Higuain’s failings in both the World Cup and Copa America finals have been well-noted, but his record this term includes goals against Juventus, Lazio, Fiorentina and Inter.
Of the 23 matches in which he has scored, Napoli have recorded 21 victories and two draws, underlining his importance to their title challenge and he is currently just six goals shy of Milan legend Gunnar Nordahl’s single-season Serie A record haul. That mark has stood since 1950, and Higuain’s exploits have understandably led to speculation he will not remain with Napoli beyond the current campaign.
However, it will not be easy to prise him away from the San Paolo, with club owner Aurelio De Laurentiis revealing he added an expensive buyout fee to the player’s latest contract back in the summer as a number of clubs made enquiries about Higuain’s availability. “That’s why I put that clause in there,” the President told reporters last week. “If someone is prepared to pay €95m for him then we’ll see, but there’s always someone stupid out there willing to try!”
That list may include a number of Premier League sides, with Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United all linked with the 28 year old in recent weeks. As English football set to see the likes of Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte and Jürgen Klopp go head to head next season, the arrival of a striker like Higuain could tip the balance of power firmly in one direction given his current form.
As he dreams of emulating Diego Maradona in bringing a Serie A title to Naples, moving on to a club capable of Champions League glory may tempt the Argentinean international into leaving, and his lethal finishing would be a major boost to those hopes.
Read more from Adam Digby